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From South Korea to Malaysia, ‘smart cities’ turn to ghost towns (scmp.com)
140 points by HillaryBriss 11 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 86 comments

South Korean here. (I live in Seoul, Kangnam.) This article contains so much mis-information about Songdo, that I would like to point out.

> where lamp posts are always watching you

CCTVs are very, very common in South Korea. This isn't something special to Songdo, and CCTVs are the number-one reason that South Korea has the 5th highest rate of people that think walking around in the dark is safe. Nobody thinks that CCTVs are surveillance; people believe the government in general.

> small touch screen display on his kitchen wall that allows him to keep track of his and his wife’s consumption of electricity, water and gas and, most important, compare it against the average statistics for the building.

This is super-common in Seoul, it's not something special in Songdo or such.

> It claims to have the highest concentration of green Leed-certified buildings in the world, yet it is still entirely car-based, with not even a train line to the nearby airport.

One thing to keep in mind is that South Korea generally (especially Seoul) is a very public-transport friendly, with a pretty-high 40% percentage of all transport (user's own car takes 39% of all transport).

The time when Songdo was planned, the high public-transport percentage was considered a 'bad-thing'. People tried to model the 'America Way', and that's why Songdo was constructed with an emphasis on car-based transport. This plan was reverted years ago, and Songdo is currently constructing four subway routes.

> From South Korea to Malaysia, ‘smart cities’ turn to ghost towns

Songdo is not a ghost town, that is just plain wrong. It was one of the most successful cities in South Korea. It's population is rapidly increasing every year, with a competitive rate of 4855:1 to move in Songdo. Also, unlike the article's explanation, a big fraction of Songdo population comes from provinces other than Seoul (which is something similar to rural areas in the US).

Overall, this article is overly emphasizing things that are nothing to Koreans but can be seen negatively to Americans; the explanation about Songdo are plain-wrong; and I just can't see what this article is trying to say.

Yep. One of my expat friends lived in Songdo and it was great every time I went to visit. It doesn't have the same pop density as Seoul, but it's a great mixture of a modern city and proximity to nature.

Also the hour and a half ride is a big deal but not too big of a deal. Parts of Seoul are an hour subway from Seoul. When I lived there, it was close enough that we would go to our friend's place before clubbing in Gangnam some nights. (Pretty sure we took a taxi to the club though)

If CCTVs led to a perception of safety, New York/London/Chicago would rank highly as areas people feel safe walking around at night in. Or, similarly, it would suggest that people would not feel safe walking around in areas in Korea that do not have extensive CCTVs. The people of an area make it safe or not - not surveillance.

Mass surveillance does not provide much benefit but comes at extreme risk of abuse. Even without resorting to the typical examples, one needs only look to things like such as 'LOVEINT' [1]. The NSA were/(are?) spying on potential and present love interests so often that they created a tongue in cheek term for it. And obviously keep in mind that that the incidents where NSA agents were busted is likely but a fraction of all incidents.

But I do think one ought also consider the typical examples. In particular the Holocaust was carried out using nothing more than a census and some incredibly primitive computing technologies provided by IBM. What will happen the next time an awful person gains power, or are we supposed to hope this will simply never happen? We ought never support, implicitly or otherwise, domestic surveillance.

[1] - https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2013/08/24...

> New York/London/Chicago would rank highly as areas people feel safe walking around at night in.

I thought NY/Chicago doesn't have as much CCTVs in narrow streets as South Korea?

Was interested in this: NY(784km^2) has about 2000 cameras that NYPD deployed (~3 cameras/km^2). Seoul(605km^2) had about 48697 cameras that the metropolitan government has installed (~80 cameras/km^2).

> Or, similarly, it would suggest that people would not feel safe walking around in areas in Korea that do not have extensive CCTVs.

Basically, every street you can go to has CCTVs in Seoul. The portion of streets without CCTV installed is absurdly low.

> Mass surveillance does not provide much benefit but comes at extreme risk of abuse.

I agree that there is a big risk of abuse here; but I have to disagree with the point that CCTVs provide little benefit. CCTVs allow the arrest rates of 'the five violent crimes' (Murder, robbery, rape, theft, violence) go up from 79% in 2011 to 100% in 2016. 87% of all people agrees to install more CCTVs, 12% thinks that the current CCTV is appropriate; and only 1% thinks that there are too much CCTVs.

IMO, keeping an eye on the government whether they are using CCTVs inappropriately is a better choice than just insisting on not installing CCTVs.

>CCTVs allow the arrest rates of 'the five violent crimes' (Murder, robbery, rape, theft, violence) go up from 79% in 2011 to 100% in 2016. I find this very suspicious. Do you have any statistics confirming it? Also worth considering that in SK there are insanely high conviction rates, and probably for similar reason as in Japan (https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20810572).

CCTVs are probably there to stop/decrease some kind of events. For example red light cams, speeding, not stopping at STOP signs, illegal parking, vandalism, etc.

Recently two guys were seen on a CCTV doing speed (amphetamine) in a car. So the police went after them, then later they have been charged.

So it "works", but of course two dudes duing a few stipes of speed is not exactly the crime of the century.

And ... on the other hand, as you point out, it's not the surveillance apparatus that matters, but the intent of the powers that be. IBM and censuses are still around, just as racism/xenophobia/lack-of-empathy. Census questions are a hot topic. Just as caging people that want a better future for themselves.

Therefore I think CCTVs and the debate around them - especially on HN - is just noise, because so far I haven't seen any proper data and study on them.

CCTV is there to document crime, that’s all.

Could also be cultural difference. You really can’t comment whether they work or not from a western person’s perspective if they are used in Asia.

Cultural differences don't change objective facts even if they react differently.

I spent a few months in Songdo visiting my in-laws (and often return) and I generally concur. Specifically, I found that the area had much more of a community feel than these articles let on (local interest groups for expats and Koreans alike, libraries, a wide variety of restaurants, meeting places) and I found the quality of life higher than in some American inner cities where I've lived (LA specifically). I found the contrast between the high rises and the parks refreshing and uplifting, and it was heart-warming to see people take advantage of abandoned land to have makeshift vegetable gardens on the outskirts of town. Both the large and the small testified to the ingenuity of the people living there.

Things that I didn't like so much: it definitely felt like there had been a shift away from bringing in businesses to housing, so that you end up with blocks upon blocks of apartments, and with empty business districts. I worked in a high-rise that had an identical 30-story building next to it, completely empty. The Incheon government is trying to turn the tide by attracting biotech and more universities, but it will probably take years before the balance is properly restored.

> the area had much more of a community feel... local interest groups for expats and Koreans alike, libraries, a wide variety of restaurants, meeting places... makeshift vegetable gardens on the outskirts of town

Thank you for sharing this. Far more than the article's specific concerns like CCTV coverage, planned cities seem to fail when these things aren't present. Places like the planned core of Brasilia or Section 8 highrises in the US are defined by interchangeable spaces, a lack of pleasant third places, and restrictive use of land (either by policy, like banning gardens, or logistics, like paving deadspace and closing rooftops).

Overbuilding is definitely a concern, too. It's not just a waste, it tends to feel isolating and interfere with more natural as-needed expansion. It's not as catastrophic as rendering inhabited spaces alienating, though, so hopefully things will stabilize in time.

When you look at songdo, it looks like a small section of greater seoul in general.


Also why do people trust the government when it only became a democracy about 30 years ago, and things like this happened? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/June_Struggle#Torture_and_deat...

> Also why do people trust the government when it only became a democracy about 30 years ago, and things like this happened?

Considering that the country's entire history span about 70 years (excluding the provisional government; the provisional government is exactly 100 yrs old in 2019), 30 years is a long time.

Presidents are elected with direct election; a direct consequence from the Park Jong-chol incident you have mentioned, and 1987 is the year of South Korea's 'real' democracy.

People have the power to impeach presidents with peaceful protests[0][1] and people are proud of it.

South Korea's democracy is highly trusted in the country, IMHO.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impeachment_of_Park_Geun-hye [1] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-39227342

Really the impeachment alone makes it very trustworthy regardless of its past. If petty abuse of power gets one removed from the highest office then accountability is maintained.

Not without flaws of course (election of dynastics in a democracy is generally a warning sign of power being used to self-perpetuate).

All correct. However, I think it's important to make a distinction between South Korea's government and the people who are currently operating the government. The long history of peaceful protest makes South Koreans trust in the system, but they are certainly not trustful of the people in power. They exercise their right to protest in a fantastic fashion quite frequently.

Is this why everyone and their mom switched from Kakao to Telegram during the Sewol crisis and PGH incident did not really help either.

SK is a well managed country but dont equate obedience or ignorance with trust.

Also koreans are simply ignorant about things like individualism and too much interference from the ones in power.

In 1993, 26 years ago, the US government burned 76 people alive. The FBI lied about their planning of the operation. They “lost” evidence. They lied about not having used incendiaries. They got helicopters under false pretends with drug warrants. Less than a month after the FBI caused the death of just under a hundred people the entire site was bulldozed, which happily for the government, rendered checking their stories quite difficult.

No one was ever punished for those deaths. No one suffered any professional, administrative or political demotion, censure or firing.


And the fact that Americans trust their government so much, especially the ATF and the Clinton administration, should tell you all you need to know about why South Koreans trust their government so much.

Or you're arguing against whatever case you're trying to make.

Because the government took them out of poverty? :)

Funny, downvotes :-) You might not like it, but it's true, the South Korean government (and people) went from poor to rich in basically 1 generation. Just like in China, people don't really care about abuses if their overall life is improving and they're not impacted directly...

When I first saw your un-edited comment, I tried to calm down myself. I didn’t write angry comments.

Sorry, after seeing your edited one, I couldn’t resist myself writing this comment.

Your comment implies that South Koreans are e.g. pigs that don’t care about democracy but just care about their own lives. That’s very ignorant (at the very least).

Your comment basically just plainly ignores so much South Korea citizens that protested to get democracy. You know what? The presidents that ran the country in a dictationship, used force to remove any protesting people got their righteousness from the US. Spanning as early as 1960 (when president Lee Seung Man tried to dictate the country with illegal elections) to 1987 (when South Korea finally got to elect our own presidents after 1960), people protested a lot. A LOT. Please search about the 1960 4.3 incident, 1979’s Bu-Ma protests, 1980’s Kwangju Democratic Uprising, 1987’s June protests, on and on...

Your comment also shows your view about China. People in China care about democracy they aren’t pigs either. Have you ever heard about the incidents in Tiananmen Square?

People care about democracy. Please don’t think that people only care about themselves.

The notion that people are bad people (i.e "pigs") because they care predominantly about themselves, or don't care about democracy seems to come from you.

Have you considered the idea that other cultures and nations have different ideas about how much authority they delegate to their government, and that not everyone is troubled by the fact that the government runs cameras if it means a higher degree of safety?

I've spent a lot of time in China and other Asian countries for work related reasons primarily and it is absolutely true that there's a lot of personal drive, lower trust in civic society, and much more trust in the state to organise personal life.

What's truly a narrow-minded caricature of the world is the idea that every Chinese person is secretly striving for Anglo-protestant values of freedom and charity oppressed by their government or something.

My old boss was Korean and he told me about those protests. He was a college student at the time and often waxes poetically about how easy college was back then and he'd just skip it all the time to go in the street and protest. Then he got super rich from the new government. It's probably a little bit of both, maybe don't get so irrationally upset over HN comments. He's not calling the south koreans pigs. Americans are the same way, we ignore government abuses because our lives in general are comfortable enough we simply don't care much more than to comment about it on the internet.

He didn’t imply people were pigs anywhere. Living in China I can tell you that while large parts of the urban population are relatively sympathetic to the idea of democracy in principle the peasantry really don’t care. The CPC brought them out of poverty as far as they’re concerned and they’re competent. That’s enough for them while things are going well. In 1980 most of China was dirt poor peasants so the people who despise the Communists are a minority of the long term urban population, a minority of a minority.

The important difference between China and Korea is that China killed everyone involved quite publicly as soon as protests started. If protestors in Korea had known they’d die after the first large protest there would have been few volunteers for a second.

You're putting words into my mouth.

People (taken as an overall population) care about democracy after they care about their general well-being.

That doesn't make them pigs, it makes them rational.

“The ballot box is connected to the bread box”.

East Germany only became a democracy thirty years ago too. (To be fair, it joined an existing democracy.)

An existing democracy which had a much much bleaker history than South Korea (heck, even North Korea) merely 80 years ago...

The main idea of Songdo was decentralization. It wanted to push businesses and people to live outside of Seoul. Meanwhile no one is leaving Seoul for Songdo and all the people living in Songdo commute to Seoul.

I agree with your general points: this article over-emphasizes negative aspects of a few people and the picture it paints is not representative of overall planned cities, even Songdo.

Just one nit: 4855:1 came from an article in 2007 about the initial applications for an office-tel (basically a high-rise building with offices and apartments). After 12 years, I believe Songdo has a new problem of too many ongoing housing projects and not enough people to fill the apartments to be built.

> CCTVs are the number-one reason that South Korea has the 5th highest rate of people that think walking around in the dark is safe

Seoul was considered very safe when I visited there ten years ago. I believe that was before CCTV cameras were common.

I went to Songdo for work once. It's amazing, it feels like a science fiction city from the 25th century.

> CCTVs are very, very common in South Korea. This isn't something special to Songdo, and CCTVs are the number-one reason that South Korea has the 5th highest rate of people that think walking around in the dark is safe.

Where did you find this figure?

I wonder how the UK fares given the oft cited, but potentially wrong, stat that the UK has the highest number of CCTVs in the world.

Okay, I searched around for a bit; it's been a while since I was looking around:

https://time.com/4983344/worlds-safest-best-worst-cities/ says Seoul is 14th in 2017 and https://safearound.com/danger-rankings/cities/ says Seoul is 5th.

I can't find about the rate of being safe in the dark, sorry :-(

London may have a huge amount of CCTV, but people in London certainly don't feel safe to walk at night through many parts of the city. London has a high crime rate, stabbings, muggings, hate crime, etc. and the Mayor of London has been ignoring the rise of violence and crime entirely for the last couple years.

I find the inclusion of the statement about the Mayor of London to be very strange. He has very limited powers in this area [0]. In contrast to the government, who have, in real-terms, massively cut public services including policing [1], social care, education, and youth services which have a far more direct link to increasing crime - especially county lines [2] (drug networks) and youth knife crime, both of which have featured heavily in the news recently.

[0]: https://fullfact.org/news/what-can-mayor-london-actually-do/

[1]: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-45477960

[2]: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/county-lines

County lines seems more like a convenient myth.

It's much easier if people can assume it's not locals involved, but instead scary gangsters from london (code for black people?).

County lines are real, as is cuckooing.

I get that you don't believe their real, but I'm curious about how much effort you've taken to investigate the phenomena.

It never ceases to amaze me how deep and broad the knock-on effects of prohibition are. What a clusterfuck.

> County lines seems more like a convenient myth.

Never heard the term before, learnt something new today I guess :)

If the Mayor of London doesn't have significant influence over how budgets are spent on the police and other public sectors and infrastructure in London then we might as well scrape that position altogether. Currently I feel like the Mayor is spending all his time and budget on personal PR and conducting dumb Twitter fights with foreign leaders.

I get it, we all hate Trump, but our Mayor should not have to worry about foreign presidents, no matter how dumb these presidents are. The UK has a foreign secretary for that work. The Mayor should entirely focus his efforts and OUR TAX MONEY on the issues which our city has. I hate it that our hard earned tax money is being used for the Mayor to fund his personal PR campaigns to further progress his political career. How is that useful to anyone?

And yes, I agree, the government is 100% responsible for cuts to the public sector and that's why all the establishment parties (Tories and Labour) are both in the shits, because they both have failed this country. There's no party I could currently vote for. Tories have literally wasted everyone's time and money for the last couple years with their own Game of Thrones game in their ranks, Labour is just an incognito racist party with Corbyn being dumb and ideological which is a dangerous combination (like Hitler was), Lib Dem and Greens are like a water melon, green on the outside, but red inside, and UKIP is just a disgrace full stop.

They are all responsible for the UK's problems, but when I have to point my finger at someone for the problems in London, then the first instance is the Mayor of London.

Agree in an ideal world the Mayor shouldn't have to worry about Trump, but Trump tends to attack him directly with misinformation and lies so I would expect the Mayor to defend himself.

I would think the harsh penalties for crimes plus a lot of CCTVs make the difference.

Anyone who had read Jane Jacob's Death and Life of Great American Cities would predict what happens when you build isolated high rises, no matter how smart, with no actual connection to the urban life.

The article also speaks of these cities as not intended for the rural poor migrating to the city. Edward Glaeser's Triumph of the City examines (among other things) why the rural poor flock to cities: no matter how dismal the slum, it's still better than the farm, and it's at least possible for some entrepreneurs to get started. Smart cities that exclude the poor and working class can't thrive.

Glaeser shows that cities are engines of economic growth, but this requires clean water and sanitary living for everyone, and only state intervention can provide that. Instead of building high tech playgrounds, cities should literally clean up their act. Getting clean water is not glamourous, and probably not lucrative to individual actors, but in the end it pays off.

> no matter how dismal the slum, it's still better than the farm

I think I'd rephrase that. It's generally not that bad on the farm, but it's a dead end. People (especially young people) will almost always choose to be uncomfortable if it results in a chance of a better life.

I used to hang out for a while in a native bar in Winnipeg. Virtually everybody there was just scraping by. Quite a few were homeless and were spending whatever money they had got begging on a beer. Every single person that I talked to told me that the reserve (with all its faults) was dramatically better than the streets of Winnipeg. But having talked up a big story about how they were going to go to the city and makes something of themselves, most were embarrassed to go back to the reserve. Quite a few of them got caught up with addiction, etc and couldn't save enough for the bus ticket back (Manitoba is a big province and some of these guys were from a long way away).

As a bit of an aside, the first time I went to that bar, I was dragged kicking and screaming by a colleague. I was scared to death to go in there. But it ended up being one of the nicest, friendliest bars I've ever had the privilege of being in. A culture shock, to be sure, but not at all in a bad way.

Being a rural peasant farmer in a region with an undiversified economy can be very bad. Within people’s living memory rural peasant farmers in many parts of the world were literally starving.

Rural peasants have been getting screwed by wealthy local aristocrats since the beginning of agriculture thousands of years ago. Peasants have their wealth stolen, get pressed into forced labor, get killed or raped on a whim, have their agricultural output seized while they don’t have enough food for themselves, have their land stolen and given to someone more powerful or better connected, ....

But the big outward migrations from rural places come when there is massive population growth but no commensurate growth in jobs. People’s choice ends up being to either starve or move. The first stop is the nearest big city.

For more on peasants getting screwed since forever, see Against The Grain by James Scott. (also author of Seeing Like a State, mentioned elsewhere in this comment thread)

I am a huge Jacobs fan. She is so right on so many points. But her followers have taken on cult-like tendencies to the point where anything that isn't a block of five-floor walk-ups with stores on the ground floor by definition is wrong.

I'll draw on Hong Kong as an example, as I'm very familiar with it. Society is flawed, and property developers are de facto rulers, taxing people through rent. That is unsustainable and horrible. Now that has been established, let me talk about the things that do work.

New towns have been built over the last several decades, both by the government and private developers. 30-50-storey residential towers on top of a podium/park, a mall and bus station underneath alongside rail stations, and underground parking space below that. It's far from perfect, but it uniquely solves a number of problems in elegant ways.

It funnels customers effectively through the malls (effectively streets). There is room for recreation on the podium floors and through various services in the mall. They tend to contain lots of family-oriented businesses like daycare centers. Schools and public transit are within short walking distance. Commuters are quickly spirited to various town centers and business districts. Local businesses are thriving in a vibrant business landscape as they have a solid customer base and easy foot traffic.

The very dense nature of the residential towers has allowed Hong Kong to keep its nature parks which are only a short ways away from a large segment of the population. (Yes, this has come at the expense of living space in cramped apartments).

I could go on, but my point is this: It is possible to plan cities that work. It has been done, and it doesn't have to be for rich people.

Hong Kong has learned this lesson through decades of trial and error. The early housing projects didn't really work. But aside from the luxurious investment-geared developments, Hong Kong is seeing a continuous supply of new towns built for the middle class, and (too little) public housing built for the rest. And these are places people enjoy to live in. I think Jane Jacobs would approve

Living in a space, smaller than a prison cell and paying millions for it is not exactly a successful model of living. All those people loitering in shopping malls and spending majority of the time outside not with kids or family is a result of such cramped up space.

Funny part is all the frustration of no jobs, no opportunities, and prison cell home is blamed on China and the discontent which needs to be pointed towards the 14 real estate billionaires controlling every aspect of Hong Kong person's life and freedom is very nicely directed towards China as if they made things so bad in Hong Kong. Reality is Hong Kong relied too much on real estate and traded living in prison cell houses for getting rich quick scheme. So the current situation is created by it. After living in Hong Kong for over a decade as an expat can understand pretty well when living in a expat bubble it's hard to see things for majority. Hopefully no city in the world follow Hong Kong model of development will result in same protest and violence be it democracy or autocracy.

I thought I'd prefaced my comment sufficiently. It's not perfect, far from it. Hong Kong has unique quality of life problems, as you point out. But that doesn't discredit the urbanization model on its own. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

This is not throwing baby out with bathwater but making sure the water is not too hot and the space is enough for baby to breath. Urbanization model's first principle is to provide decent living spaces in harmony with nature to its residents. Any other model which tries to forget this first principle is not a good model. Hong Kong urbanization model failed miserably and resulted in a prison size space which makes people reluctant to spend time at home with family.

If you want to look at the model go across in Singapore, they have done a wonderful job learning public housing from Hong Kong. They have done wonders with overall urbanization.

So I am not sure how to defend Hong Kong where the repercussions of this form of urbanization is manifested in the form of protest and discontent.

Glaeser is also a big Jacobs fan, and also thinks she got the part about five story walk-ups wrong. Don't get me wrong, they are great, but given rising population, our cities need either vertical growth or horizontal growth.

I agree with this view. You still need gardeners, maintenance staff, custodians, plumbers, electricians, drivers and shop staff. They cannot afford to live inside current smart cities.

Most middle-class and rich think of smart cities as just large gated communities. But unlike a gated community, a city needs a large number of lower middle class workers. If you "sweep them under the rug" by relegating them outside, you might end up with slums anyway, albeit outside the boundary.

SF is starting to have some issue getting lower wage workers to commute & work in the city.


I believe it. FWIW, I think this problem has been a theme of SF politics & transportation reporting since the 90's. I predict that it won't be solved until the SV/SF tech money bubble deflates some day.

I found Seeing Like A State even better at really elucidating the problems with planned cities. Some portions of it were heavily influenced by Jacob’s work and was completely eye-opening to me in many ways, not least of which is how most such large scale planned initiatives are doomed to failure at the outset by plans that don’t account for the real world.

Glaeser speaks approvingly of at least one planned city, namely Baron Haussmann's reconstruction of Paris in the late 19th C.

If these large scale planned cities are doomed to failure, will they simply be completely abandoned in 20..40 years.. or will they be repurposed, perhaps surrounded by tent cities or shantytowns, and find a way forward?

They’re no more doomed to failure than other planned cities like Milton Keynes[1] in the U.K., Pudong District[2] in Shanghai or Almere[3] in the Netherlands. Sometimes urban planning is done really well, as in Singapore or in the original planning of Manhattan. Sometimes it’s just a disaster, as in Dubai where there’s no municipal sewerage network and there aren’t really street names and addresses as normally understood are useless or non-existent. Sometimes governments let people who hate people design cities because they’re famous, like Le Corbusier and Brasilia. All of these cities work to different extents. They may have glaring problems but people live in them and there’s enough economic activity that they’re growing.

Large scale planner cities are not doomed to failure. Some of them will be done well and thrive and some will be utter disasters, losing all the investors’ money and plentiful public funds. But given the pace of urbanisation in the developing world massive planned city building or expansion of the existing cities is inevitable.




I have noticed that the main failing of planned cities seems to be the megalomania and misguided sense of organization trying to decide how it will be used specifically - often out of some misguided ideal of efficiency instead of leaving it to the people to decide. It brings to mind having a single restuarant outside every cul de sac and expecting residents to go only for the nearest restaurant.

Sanity calls for embracing the non-deteminism. Wall Street wasn't intended as a world financial center but that is what it wound up as.

I suspect a "modular garden" approach works best as a balance of setting up infastructure and zoning for purposes to be filled on demand. Japan at least has apparently had luck with building train/subway line loops, selling land to developers and renting out retail spaces in and near stations.

The point of the book was not that they had to fail, but they would fail if they designed in isolation and didn’t take into account how cities are used and the processes that allow them to grow and change.

Half way through reading this now actually and can't recommend it enough.

This article is trying really hard to push this dystopian narrative, using rhetoric like "big brother". But I've spent the last 3 months living in "planned cities" near Seoul (Ilsan and Gwanggyo) and have nothing but positive things to say.

I'm 30 minutes to Seoul by public transport, literally don't need a car because everything is walkable, and there are many things to do (way more than the Washington DC suburb I grew up in). I didn't even know Ilsan was a planned city until I was told so.

And isn't every city "planned" in some sense via zoning laws and such? Is Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan not a "planned" community?

I've never seen an apartment with a daily loudspeaker announcement that can't be turned off, that's ridiculous and in no way a norm in South Korea.

I much prefer the planned cities I've lived in here in Korea to the drab lifeless suburbs in America where you can't do anything without a car and the commercial areas are just giant chain stores/restaurants.

I live in Songdo (the city featured in the article), and I think I have to concur with their dystopian tone. This place felt “fake” or “manufactured” to me in some sense that I couldn’t put my finger on even before I knew that it’s a planned city. Like too much infrastructure built and the people never came to inhabit it. Not quite a ghost town, but in that direction.

I have to say that getting around without a car is rather nice in daily life, but the public transportation around town was disappointing. And it’s odd that it takes 45 minutes longer to get to the Incheon airport from my Songdo apartment than from downtown Seoul, despite being much closer.

It sounds like you’re describing The Matrix. Are you sure you’re not living in a giant simulation?

No. Are you?

I live in South Korea and write drone ground control software as a hobby. Songdo is the city I go to on the weekends to test my latest changes because it's outside the Seoul no-fly zone and has a largely deserted central park I can fly in. I wouldn't say it otherwise feels anything like a ghost town, though - just less dense and more spacious than Seoul. With kids, it'd be attractive.

Edit: Here's some old alpha screenshots of my app flying over Songdo and me: https://m.imgur.com/a/dK21yca

none of the problems that i can see have anything to do with the cities being smart, but rather with bad planning, maybe overplanning, and other issues.

so the question is, how to build a smart city the right way?

for starters, i don't think starting from scratch is a good idea, as that leads to overplanning and making predictions that don't pan out. better to pick an existing quarter and modernize that.

we have been modernizing cities for centuries, and we'll obviously continue to do so, so any future smart cities (if they are created) will all be based on existing cities, because it's not like we can just leave all our current cities behind and build new ones right next to them.

building a smart city from scratch is like a city-planners dream: let's build the ultimate city, and make it smart too.

what we really should be doing is to ask: how can we use smart city technology to enrich our peoples lives where they are now?

Stories like this focus on technology, but I think the more accurate narrative is that top-down, pre-planned design urban design is just a bad idea that comes around roughly once a generation. It never works, but it appeals to people so much that they ignore the mistakes of the past. Le Corbusier died in 1965, so it's about time for another iteration.

For architects, green field development is a chance to realize their dreams without constraint. For analysts and intellectuals, it's a chance to properly test theories and get clean, measurable data. For politicians, it's a way to receive full credit for a project and avoid the backlash from disrupting existing cities. For urban reformers who are burned out on the slow, uneven process of updating ancient cities, starting from scratch is a chance to improve things cheaply and escape dependency issues. For contractors and technologists, it's a chance to sell profitable end-to-end services.

But for everyone who lives there, it sucks. The same way Joel Spolsky reminds us that the warts on old software often serve real purposes, old cities are full of concessions to climate, travel patterns, consumer needs, and general sanity. Lucio Costa might want symmetry, lack of sprawl, and clear traffic lanes, but the people stuck living in the piloto of Brasilia want memorable layouts, walkable streets, and gradual expansion.

The silliest thing about most sci-fi cities is that they're all gleaming spires and high-tech grandeur. As you say, the cities of the future will grow from the cities and towns of the present. Any vision worth attempting needs to leave room for the people and the history already there.

What made Songdo and Forest City fail, but Shenzhen succeed? I think it's because Shenzhen put business first, and grew iteratively as people arrived. People want to move where the jobs are, not just to a fancy new IoT city.

SZ wasn’t really planned as a smart city, and it rose on its connection to HK at first in the 80s. Perhaps a more apt comparison would be Ordos New Town (Kangbashi)?

I guess that's my point: Shenzhen isn't a "smart city", it's an Special Economic Zone that happened to specialise in tech, for now. People will put up with whatever living conditions they can survive if it means they have a job. If the tech industry collapses, Shenzhen will probably just pivot to some other industry.

SEZ didn’t start out in tech (more about making cheap things for HK exporters), and it still has a lot outside of tech, it would be like the tech industry collapsing in SF, bad, but not fatal.

China also has many artificial obscure tech industry city efforts, all as successful as you would image (ie, not st all).

> What made Songdo and Forest City fail

Nah, it didn't fail (unlike the impression that the article tries to give), please see https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20476405.

Forest City is a disaster politically. The current Malaysian government (who won the latest election) turned it into a land-grab / immigration issue.

Without support at the federal level, I find it hard to imagine the project will succeed.

Video of Songdo mentioned in the article. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4TNGowdxUOQ

penthouse pictures of one of these high rises https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRrfHJmFaTc

This is an identical article taken from The Guardian.

The Guardian piece was also submitted a few days ago around here: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20409450

> Every morning, at 8.30am, an announcement is piped though a speaker in the ceiling of Kim Jong-won’s flat, barking the daily bulletin in a high-pitched voice. The disembodied broadcaster details new parking measures, issues with the pneumatic waste disposal chute and various building maintenance jobs to be carried out that day. “There’s no way of turning it off,” sighs Kim’s wife.

Jesus, this is straight from 1984. Why would someone agree to live in place like that

> ...“I hate technology but my husband is an early adopter. He has to have everything first.”

Maybe there's no off switch, but the barrier to more drastic measures seems to be social, rather than the death sentence it would have been in 1984. That doesn't mean this is alright, bad and intrusive design causes social problems, but I think it's a mistake to conflate design flaws with intentional coercion.

ok, we're tech people here, how can there be no way to turn it off? I mean, its in your home and can at least be covered, disconnected from a power source etc. In 1984 the issue was that if you did that, they would sooner or later find out and come for you, but I honestly don't believe its so bad in modern SK

Tech nothing - if I couldn't get to the power I'd tape an acoustic tile to the thing and drape the whole mess with a blanket. There's a reason most fire alarms in the US go off when disturbed, and are loud enough to cause hearing damage in an empty room; that's what it takes to fight the inevitable unplugging and silencing attempts aimed at a major safety device.

But the next line is "I hate technology but my husband is an early adopter. He has to have everything first.”, so I'm pretty sure the problem with taking a hammer to the speaker is marital rather than political. This isn't 1984, it's a lesson in how bad design aggravates social friction and personal disagreements.

I mean, there's no way to turn off Windows 10 update either. The motivation is presumably the same in both cases, i.e. to reduce need for tech support

Make the alternatives worse, or remove the alternatives altogether e.g. remove the off switch.

Most tech started removing off switches around 15 years ago anyway.

"But many are prohibitively expensive and catalysts for land dispossession and social inequality" : Is it really a problem ? It is simply like that.

I didn't see much evidence in the article about 'ghost towns'. it may be true but the article didn't back it up.

You cant even read text on this website without js enabled, wth is wrong with people

This article reads almost like a hatchet job.

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